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Media relations

The role of news desks

Give a reporter a few glasses and you’re bound to hear ‘those idiots [or usually worse] on the desk have screwed up my story’. Very rarely will reporters confess that the desk saved their arse.

The desk in question is newspaper parlance for the news desk – or rather the collection of news editors that head up each news department of a newspaper. Home news (front of the paper) has one, business pages have one and the foreign section has one. They’re the first rung of management in a newspaper office and like most middle managers they are hopelessly squeezed by the reporters and correspondents beneath them and the section heads, deputy editors and editors above them.

It’s a pretty hard life being a news editor, putting together a credible list of 12 to 15 stories a day, that will be picked over and pulled apart like a bag of chips found by a seagull. As one Fleet Street stalwart says: ‘Few people dream of being a news editor, it kind of just happens.’ But news desks wield real power. They get the first say over what goes in the paper. If it’s not on their news list – hopefully early in the morning – it’s just not going to go in.

Increasingly I get breaking news from Twitter. It is a great way to point you to other journalists’ work or to established commentators

Convincing a news editor of the value of a story is one of the first skills a young reporter has to master. Talking a news editor into running a story, being able to tell them succinctly and wittily why a story matters, is half way to writing it. Actually, quite often that conversation turns into the introduction. So understanding how a news desk works, when they make decisions and what they value, is a long way to understanding the pulse of the whole newspaper.

For most news editors, the day starts early – between 6am and 7am and probably with Radio 4’s Today programme. For the serious newspapers, it does not quite set the agenda for the day but it has a good attempt and its combative interviewers can sometimes get a story while journalists are eating their toast. Once in the office, news editors will check their own papers’ final editions, take a look at the night log – a detailed report of all the changes and decisions that took place overnight – and then begin reading their rivals.

Papers read or scanned, and the serious business of putting together a list will begin. Usually there will be a skeleton from which to start, which will contain diary items or known events that day, and ideas/ story lines from writers who are based outside the office. All desks will use wire services to help to develop their lists. The front of the paper and the tabloids will use Press Association (PA) heavily, the City desks will use Reuters and foreign desks will use Reuters, Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Associated Press (AP). For City news editors, RNS or London Stock Exchange announcements, are very important.

Social media makes mark

Social media is also helping to shape newspaper content. Ben Griffiths, City news editor at the Daily Mail, is a late convert to Twitter. He says: ‘Increasingly I get breaking news from Twitter. It is a great way to point you to other journalists’ work or to established commentators. If you are following the right people, it can be a great source of news.’ Jane Hamilton, former assistant news editor and now employment and cashflow editor at The Sun, says: ‘Twitter and social media is increasingly important because of the speed at which it can show public opinion and because it may reveal celebrities’ real thoughts, not those as presented by a publicist.’ News editors will also have an increasingly long list of websites that they like to check for news lines, including the BBC sites and overseas papers, such as the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

All the while, they are doing this, they are taking calls from reporters who are phoning in from press conferences or interviews, talking to foreign correspondents and stringers about they day they have just had, or the day ahead of them, and allocating stories to reporters.

There are also calls from the readers. Hamilton says: ‘We get a lot of calls from readers at The Sun. You have to decide which are worth following up on and for those that are, we will send a reporter out to see the caller. Many calls to the paper are also simply for help and information and we try to assist as best we can because readers have a very strong connection to the brand.’ Putting a good list together is an art. You are looking for a splash, of course, hopefully exclusive. But you also need a good mix of other stories to make the main page leads in the paper: politics, show business, celebrity, human interest, business, health, crime and so on.

Simon English, deputy City editor at the Evening Standard and The Independent, says that when he is trying to put a list together he is aiming partly to cover everything that is happening that morning, so the editor can pick out things that appeal to him, and partly to offer something different or funny that will grab people’s attention.

The list will then be presented, usually by the section editor, at morning news conference which usually happens anytime between 10am and noon, depending on the paper. Conference is usually attended by a news editor or section editor, plus the editor and deputies. People from pictures, leaders and obituaries will also be there. At The Guardian, anyone can attend conference, but most people rarely have the time. The City sections of The TimesThe Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail will hold smaller less formal meetings of reporters and news editors, before the main paper conference, at which ideas are discussed and reporters will pitch their own exclusives.

The PR industry needs to get a grip. It fails to understand how few of us there are and how many of them there are. It is getting worse

Most of the stories mentioned by the news editor in conference will become page leads – the top story on that page. For a story to knock out one of these page leads, it has to be pretty special. Stories that crop up later in the day are given a poorer ‘show’ and tend to fill the down-page slots. As to when decisions are made, English says: ‘It’s a moving brief. Some calls get made very early, others very late. Things that definitely aren’t going on to the front page get placed as soon as possible so that pictures can be selected and graphics done. You’re trying to call the lead as late as you can, while allowing for the fact that deadlines exist and some people might actually want to go home.’

Decisions are made by a combination of the editor, deputy editor, City editor and news editors. ‘It’s consultative rather than dictatorial. You make your case if you have a strong opinion, say ‘I dunno, boss’ if you don’t,’ English says. Other papers have a slightly different culture. At the Daily Mail and The Sun a lot of decisions are made by the back bench, the most experienced  sometimes as much as 40 years’ experience – production staff. The editor’s decision is always final.

At The Times, foreign assistant news editor Suzy Jagger, says: ‘It used to be the case that not a lot happened in the morning meeting. But now some decisions have to be made earlier.’ News International’s printers at Broxbourne in Hertfordshire also print titles for other publishers, so it is imperative that each paper’s pages are ‘off stone’ at the time allocated.

Many of the heavy papers have a second meeting in the afternoon and contenders for page one and for page three will become clear by this meeting. The editor will take a close interest in these stories and also any other stories that could ‘come forward’; they will also want to know what is the foreign lead and the business lead. However, these decisions can continue to change right up to about 8.45pm (at The Times) for the first edition and through the night, if necessary.

Specialists move to front 

Every reporter dreams of writing the ‘splash’ and increasingly the specialists in the business department and foreign departments are writing for the front page, as much as the political journalists or home news journalists.

The financial crisis has made business a story that affects everyone. Who would ever have thought that the interest rate at which banks lend money to each other would become a front page issue? Jagger, who used to work in business and has also worked in Parliament, says: ‘A story stops being a business story when it stops being a problem for the finance minister and spills into general domestic policy.’

Stories about City bonuses, rewards for failure, private contractors messing up, energy bills spiraling or corruption in business are all areas where a business story appeals to a wider audience. ‘A lot of people didn’t understand what LIBOR was, but that story [about Barclays allegedly trying to manipulate the bank rate] still made the front pages because the public realised that something underhand was going on,’ Jagger says.

The Daily Mail’s Griffiths agrees: ‘If a business story is about a big consumer issue, something to do with a retailer or a bank or a big employer, then it will go forward.’ Usually the business reporter who covers the beat will write the story, other times a political journalist will be asked to help. Some papers have specialist consumer and business reporters. Griffiths denies that putting the story up front means it has to be dumbed down.

A story stops being a business story when it stops being a problem for the finance minister and spills into general domestic policy

The banking crisis showed how big stories – that often run for weeks, if not months – will be divided up and addressed by teams. The banking editor might write the main story, with input from the political editor. The economics or City editor will write an analysis piece alongside. A US correspondent may be asked to feed in and the investigations editor may be used to dig and provide exclusives on that particular story.

When the stories are written, they are filed back to the news desk anytime from 2.30pm to 7.30pm, where the news editors will spend a few minutes checking that the writer has got the right angle and that the story has panned out as expected. Only when they are happy, will they send it through to production to be sub-edited and put on page. This makes the early evening the busiest time for a news desk as copy comes in from all sources. Never call a news desk in the afternoon, unless your story genuinely is a contender for the front page.

And think about why you are calling the desk at all? ‘PRs who phone news desks tend to know very little about how papers work. They ought to know the particular reporter and call them,’ says Jagger. The Evening Standard’s English says: ‘The PR industry needs to get a grip. It fails to understand how few of us there are and how many of them there are. It is getting worse.’

News desks across Fleet Street are under pressure like never before. There are more sources of news and greater expectations from a public that wants a considered and full report in minutes. That scenario is not going to go away and the news desk will remain the hub of the operation – doing most of the heavy lifting, taking the criticism and rarely enjoying the plaudits. They love it.
This article first appeared in issue 70